“A lot of these women, the first thing they did when hit with the news that they needed a breast removed was search Google. All they saw were these stark, post-surgery pictures. If they’d been able to see something like this, where the women look beautiful and strong… They told me that would have really helped.”
Thousands of women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK, and many undergo mastectomies. Yet there’s still something arresting about seeing the scars women are left with if they don’t have reconstructive surgery.
And it’s something photographer Ami Barwell has thought about since her mum, Sue, was diagnosed with cancer in 1993.
“You don't see mastectomy photographs really,” she tells stylist.co.uk. “I saw it on my mum when I was 15 and it was a shock. It was ‘Wow, that’s something you don’t see’ but it’s actually common that people don’t choose to have reconstruction.
“She chose not to and that’s how many people choose to live – it should be shown more.”
Now Barwell wants to showcase the beauty and strength in “living flat”, as one of her models puts it, in a powerful photo project.
Part of Cancer Research UK’s Stand Up to Cancer campaign, the series is simply titled ‘Mastectomy’ and highlights 14 women who’ve had one or both breasts removed.
Of course, ‘powerful’ is a word easily overused, but in this case appropriate – especially when you realise one of the reasons we find the pictures so striking is because we just don’t see these kind of scars very often.
York-based Barwell, who has predominantly worked with musicians since becoming a photographer in 1998, decided to reach out to survivors earlier this year.
She tells stylist.co.uk: “I wanted to concentrate on things that matter a bit more. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to do something breast cancer-related, and the more I worked on portraiture, the more this kind of project made sense.
“This is the side of breast cancer you don’t tend to see. There are post-surgery shots or a pretty pink version, and I just wanted to show something that was real. Something that slapped you in the face a bit!”
Her subjects similarly want to “demystify” mastectomy scars as well as address the struggles with body image and society’s notions of ‘femininity’ that so often go hand-in-hand with cancer treatment – Barwell began with tentative enquiries for models in support forums and was overwhelmed by the response.
As one of the participants, Mel Johnston, explains: “I’m still a woman and I wanted to show that breasts do not define my sexuality or gender. I’m still me despite having a part of my body missing.”
For some of the women featured, the shoot (which you can see in full below) was a “profoundly emotional” experience.
“There was one lady who was the most nervous out of all the models, but the shots looked stunning and she sent me a text as soon as she left,” Barwell explains. “She was telling me she’d really struggled with body image and had six years of counselling and nothing helped, but told me she skipped out of the studio like a new woman.
“After seeing the pictures, she even wore a swimsuit for the first time and is getting the shots framed.”
Barwell adds: “A couple were so confident and just happy to be alive. You do think ‘Yeah, they’re only boobs!’ It’s important for people to see these and know you can be confident.
“I did get quite teary after the shoot, they’re so amazing and brave to do it. They were sad stories but it wasn’t depressing – it was upbeat and I’m really glad I did it.”
What Barwell, her mum Sue, and indeed, many of her models hope, is that first and foremost, the pictures will encourage women to check their breasts regularly: “When I showed my mum the project, she was shocked at first then really proud. She said if we can just save a few extra people by getting them to check themselves... It’s so strange to me that even a few of my friends admit they don’t check. It’s so silly, it takes no time – just do it in the shower.”
And whether someone decides to have reconstructive surgery or not, Barwell also hopes that her pictures will help anyone struggling with body image during or after breast cancer treatment: “I think the main thing I want people to think when they see these is that they’re really beautiful – not to stare at their scars but to see a beautiful woman, with both the strength and the pain.”
“Some women I know both personally and professionally have struggled with their body image following breast cancer surgery and treatment. I wanted to show that women can still celebrate their bodies after cancer.”
“This project for Stand Up To Cancer shows women that the world doesn’t end because you have to have a breast removed (or both); that life can go on.”
Caroline before her second mastectomy.
“I want other women to know that having reconstruction is not the only option and I love the freedom of being flat.”
“I want to show those women who are going through their cancer journey that it is doable, not easy, but with time and acceptance you can get through it and that we are still sexy and beautiful. It’s also something I had wanted to have done, a picture to celebrate my journey and have a reminder as to how strong I proved myself to be.”
“I’m proud of my scars, they mean I’m surviving and a reminder to do things when I can and not to put things off. If you get a letter for your mammogram, don’t ignore it. I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t gone.”
“By sharing my photos publicly I hope that awareness of breast cancer is raised and that no matter what scarring there is, we’re still beautiful women. I felt empowered, and thought to myself, ‘This is not something to be afraid or ashamed of but something to celebrate!’”
“I want to show everyone that it’s OK to live without a boob or two. It wasn’t my choice to follow this path but I did choose to make the most of what I have and to get on with life.”
“I feel so proud of the pictures. If I manage to save just one life having taken part, then I’ve achieved something.”
“I got quite emotional as I know the message these will portray to people is definitely positive and will give them hope to fight and remain positive themselves.”
“I never wore my prosthetics as they never felt right to me. I was on holiday with my family when I saw the photos for the first time. It was profoundly emotional. I’d been very worried that I wouldn't like the images; I rarely like photos of myself. On the contrary, I loved Ami's photos. For the first time since treatment, I felt feminine and attractive. Before I saw the images, I had been struggling to put on my swimming costume. However, the images gave me the boost I needed to see myself in a more positive light. Much to the delight of the children, I was able to go swimming with them for the rest of the holiday.”
“I think we all want to feel useful and whilst going through cancer was horrific for me and those closest to me, it feels so good when you’re given the opportunity to do something positive with that experience.”
“I’m so proud to be part of this project. Stand Up To Cancer is all about sticking two fingers up at cancer and I think Ami’s captured that beautifully. I wanted to be part of it partly because, when it comes to new experiences, the word ‘no’ is no longer in my vocabulary. Since having cancer I want to embrace every opportunity that comes my way and really live life to the max. But I also want to demystify mastectomy scars. I’m still a woman and I wanted to show that breasts do not define my sexuality or gender. I’m still me despite having a part of my body missing.”
“I wanted to get involved to help raise awareness of breast cancer, and to show that choosing to live flat is a positive choice.”
“By taking part in this project for Stand Up To Cancer, I hope people will see beyond our surgeries. We’re still perfectly normal people that have families, jobs and live the best life that we can.”